Thursday, May 7, 2009

Perspective: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Today a family friend called to recommend a tour of Persepolis for our upcoming trip. I really look forward to seeing the actual ruins of Persepolis (from the Greek Perses polis, or Persian city; referred to as Takht-e Jamshid in Farsi) when I visit the city of Shiraz. It dates back to the 500s BCE, a prosperous time for the Persians that modern Iranians often look to with pride when they claim to inherit a grand civilization and an "exceptional" history.

(image from

(My family in front of the winery Persepolis in Napa Valley last summer)

Also today, I finished reading the English translation of Marjane Satrapi's book Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood.

If you have not yet read the graphic novels or seen the movie, I highly recommend both. The story is upsetting, beautiful, and at times humorous besides being insightful and educational. When I saw Persepolis in theatres, I was moved to tears and filled with questions. It opened up a path to my recent history, because Satrapi's childhood coincided with my mother's young adulthood.

The background of both of their stories line up to some degree. Like Satrapi, my mother came from a wealthy family. Although little remains of the Mousavi prestige and wealth today, my great great grandfather had a thriving business exporting the delicious little grapes grown in Maragheh (in the province of East Azerbaijan, Iran) to Russia. Like Satrapi's family, my mother's family was involved in the uprisings for secession in Azerbaijan. My mom's family was also well educated. Besides being a famous merchant, my great great grandfather was also an atheist who sent his daughter (my great grandmother) to receive an education which included physical training as an acrobat.

The closer similarities come in their personal histories. After the revolution, schools were closed indefinitely. My mother, after having just finished high school, went to Tehran (where Satrapi and her family were living) to study German so that she could one day emigrate (Satrapi went to a French school). When my mom went back to school in Tabriz from 1982-1984, she too was uncomfortable in the newly-required veil. It was during this time that she saw blood ooze out onto the street from a little red car after it had been crumpled with bullets from Iranian guards like aluminum foil in a fist. She too had to hide from Iraqi fighter planes on multiple occaisions, once with only the cover of bushes in the orchard with her grandmother as two brown jets zoomed just overhead. Although she was married to my father in 1985, she was not able to leave Iran until 1987, just one year before the Iran-Iraq war ended. My mother, like Satrapi, survived a revolution and a war, and took refuge in another country. All this at about my age.

It's almost incredible to think how many others share a similar story. One million people demonstrated against the Shah in 1979, and not all of them in support of the Islamic government that was to come. About the same number of Iranians died in the gruesome eight-year war that took advantage of post-revolution weaknesses. Although more and more people feel constricted and endangered by the current regime, it is clear that many Iranians have suffered too much revolution and war to feel strong enough to undertake any more. As for myself, I can hardly tell that I'm living through war, and two at that.

Because of the intricate structure of the Iranian government, a complete turnaround of the Islamic Republic is unlikely, but perhaps a small political change could revolutionize Iran and bring it once again close to the West? I'll save the exploration of politics for another entry.

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